All through his ministry, Jesus specifically forbade his disciples from preaching the gospel to Gentiles: "Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not" (Matt. 10:5). But there were hints that the Gentiles would one day be included. Matthew took effort to make this apparent in his gospel, from the very beginning, in the second chapter, where he tells of the faith of the wise men from the east: their study of the scriptures, their understanding of Christ and his importance, their warning in a dream that saved the life of the baby Jesus. Their righteousness and perceptiveness stands in contrast to that of the common Jews who had no room in the inn, and the Jewish king, Herod, who wanted the infant Christ killed.
Throughout Jesus' three-year ministry there are a handful of stories of Gentiles who were faithful enough to receive miracles at the hand of Christ. And there are parables Christ told, in which the Gentiles are allowed to take the place of the Jews--such as the parable of the marriage of the king's son. These should have prepared the disciples for the idea that the gospel would not be the Jews' private property for long.
Then, at the very end of Matthew, the closing verses are Christ's injunction to the disciples, "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" (Matt. 28:19). The word "nations" in this scripture is translated from a Greek word "ethnos," which in the Greek Old Testament is used to specifically designate a pagan or Gentile people (Streathern, p. 189).
So it should have been pretty clear to the disciples that the directive to teach the gospel only to the Jews had been expanded so that the blessings of the gospel could be made available to everyone in the world. Indeed, Peter, John and Philip all followed this commission quite quickly, as in Chapter 8 of Acts we find all three of them teaching the gospel in the cities of the Samaritans, and Philip also teaching the gospel to the Ethiopian.
This was the question that was answered definitively by the vision given to Peter in Acts 10. A centurian named Cornelius, well-prepared to accept the gospel, had a vision at the ninth hour of the day, which would be 3:00 in the afternoon. Why is the time significant? It was the time of the afternoon prayer. Revelations come in answer to prayer. In addition, Cornelius had been fasting (Acts 10:30). He saw, "an angel of God coming in to him, and saying unto him, Cornelius. And when he looked on him, he was afraid, and said, What is it, Lord? And he said unto him, Thy prayers and thine alms are come up for a memorial before God. And now send to Joppa, and call for one Simon, whose surname is Peter: He lodgeth with one Simon a Tanner, whose house is by the sea side: he shall tell thee what thou oughtest to do" (Acts 10:3-6). He sent two servants and one of his soldiers who was also religiously minded to Joppa right away, 34 miles south of Caesarea, or about 11 hours walking distance (Ogden/Skinner, p. 55).
They were nearing the city about the sixth hour (noon), which was another regular hour of prayer. Peter at that time was praying on the housetop, "And saw heaven opened, and a certain vessel descending unto him, as it had been a great sheet knit at the four corners, and let down to the earth: wherein were all manner of fourfooted beasts of the earth, and wild beasts, and creeping things, and fowls of the air. And there came a voice to him, Rise, Peter; kill, and eat. But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common or unclean. And the voice spake unto him again the second time, What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common. This was done thrice; and the vessel was received up again into heaven" (Acts 10:11-116).
As an important part of the Mosaic Law (the Law of Moses), the people had been given severe dietary restrictions relating to the animals they could consume. (See Deut. 14:3-20.) Basically, they were forbidden from eating birds and animals that were carnivores or scavengers, and they were forbidden from eating animals that ate their own feces. So the term "unclean" is pretty literal here (JustBible.net).
"The 'great sheet knit at the four corners' probably resembled a large prayer shawl of the kind worn by Jewish men during their religious devotions. Nonkosher animals wrapped in a holy prayer shawl would have made a doubly significant impression on Peter" (Ogden/Skinner, p. 57).
It's not so surprising, then, that Peter asked the Lord, Really? It was a mega cultural shock.
Why is it that important messages from Heaven so often come in three repetitions? Well, maybe because three in Hebrew (and in so many other ways in life) represents the Godhead. It becomes quite clear on the third time that it is truly a directive given through the Holy Spirit and not just a wandering of the mind.
"While Peter thought on the vision, the Spirit said unto him, Behold three men seek thee. Arise therefore, and get thee down, and go with them, doubting nothing: for I have sent them" (Acts 10:19--21). And Peter needed that clear command, because the three men asked him to come to Caesarea to teach Cornelius the gospel. "Caesarea [was] the Roman capital of Judaea. It had a temple of Zeus and a temple of Augustus, both built by Herod the Great. It would have been repulsive for Peter to go there; he resided instead in Jewish Joppa" (Ogden/Skinner, p. 55).
And this act of faith was rewarded: Cornelius had a large number of people assembled to hear the word of God from Peter. When Cornelius related his vision, "Then Peter opened his mouth [once again, Step One of missionary work], and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him" (Acts 10:34-35). Peter taught them about Jesus Christ, and their acceptance of the truth was so immediate that, "While Peter yet spake these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them which heard the word. And they of the circumcision which believed [in other words, Jews who believed in Christ and had been baptized as Christians] were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because that on the Gentiles also was poured out the gift of the Holy Ghost. For they heard them speak with tongues, and magnify God" (Acts 10:44-46). "The manner in which the word circumcised is used throughout the book of Acts and the epistles is generally as a one-word representation for the entire law of Moses" (Matthews, p. 103). Then answered Peter, Can any man forbid water, that these should not be baptized, which have received the Holy Ghost as well as we? And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord" (Acts 10:46-48). (This would have just been the power of the Holy Ghost that Peter and the others witnessed unto the Gentiles' conversion, not the Gift of the Holy Ghost, since they weren't yet baptized.)
It was not at all easy for the majority of the church to accept this idea, though. Here is where the problem lay: The Jews thought that becoming a Jew (entering into the circumcision) was the first step toward becoming a Christian. "Note this important fact: even though individuals of gentile lineage now came into the Church, they had all previously converted to Judaism, which meant complying with the practice of circumcision, eating kosher food, offering sacrifice, and honoring the Sabbath day in proper Jewish style. Although Greek, Galatian, or Roman in lineage, they were Jews in religion" (Matthews, p. 99-100). Wouldn't someone who wanted to follow Christ, first have to be circumcised and have a restricted diet, and follow the hundreds of other obligations and traditions the Jews had attached to the Law of Moses?
THE NEW LAW
The answer given by the vision was no. James verified it as a second witness in Acts 15:19-20. The rule for the new converts was that they should avoid eating things that had to do with pagan worship and they should remain sexually pure. "The covenant is eternal, but this sign of the covenant is now discontinued: 'The law of circumcision is done away in me' (Moro.8:8)" (Ogden/Skinner, p. 74). Jesus announced that the Law of Moses was fulfilled.
It took a long time for this "change in policy" to be generally accepted, though, and there was some schism in the church because of it. Hundreds of years of tradition don't disappear that quickly. But it was "not simply a topic about tradition or custom but a fundamental doctrinal issue regarding the atonement of Jesus Christ" (Matthews, p. 103). The people needed to know that Jesus Christ's Atonement could save them without the Law of Moses.
Those of us old enough to remember the great Revelation on the Priesthood given to President Kimball on June 1, 1978 can relate. It had been generally understood by the church membership and taught by some of the leaders that people of African descent would never hold the Priesthood on this earth (even though Joseph Smith ordained at least one man to the Priesthood. See a previous post for more on the absolutely fascinating and little-known history of the black members of the Church.) One of those who consistently taught and wrote this belief was Elder Bruce R. McConkie, often thought of as the definitive authority on any gospel subject. But when the word of the Lord came in answer to President Kimball's pleadings, and was witnessed also to the apostles, he accepted it whole-heartedly. This is what he wrote after the revelation was given:
"We have revelations that tell us that the gospel is to go to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people before the second coming of the Son of Man. And we have revelations which recite that when the Lord comes he will find those who speak every tongue and are members of every nation and kindred, who will be kings and priests, who will live and reign on earth with him a thousand years. That means, as you know, that people from all nations will have the blessings of the house of the Lord [the temple] before the Second Coming.
"We have read these passages and their associated passages for many years. We have seen what the words say and have said to ourselves, 'Yes, it says that, but we must read out of it the taking of the gospel and the blessings of the temple to the Negro people, because they are denied certain things.' There are statements in our literature by the early brethren, wchih we have interpreted to mean that the Negroes would not receive the priesthood in mortality. I have said the same things, and [now] people write me letters and say, 'You said such and such, and how is it now that we do such and such?' And all I can say to that is that it is time disbelieving people repented and got in line and believed in a living, modern prophet. Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.
"We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don't matter any more.
"It doesn't make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June 1978." (Bruce R. McConkie, "The New Revelation on Priesthood, p. 130-132, quoted in Ogden/Skinner, p. 59. Also quoted on Wikipedia.)
The great thing about Christ's church is that each person need only pray for a personal witness to a major change such as this to receive verification from the Lord on the subject. What a great system! And when we get that witness, we need to pedal as hard as we can to adjust ourselves to completely accept the change, as did Peter and as did Elder McConkie.
(Here is a link to the Revelation on the Priesthood in the July 1978 Ensign, from which you may want to quote. Here is a link to the story of the faith of those waiting for this revelation: "African Converts Without Baptism" in a BYU devotional address given by Dale LeBaron. This may be a good opportunity to have class members share their experiences regarding major shifts in the church--how they felt, how they adjusted their perspective, how others around them reacted, etc.)
Eternal life is completely fair in that Jesus Christ's gospel is open to everyone! "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Gal. 3:28-29). "He inviteth them allt o come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all ar alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile" (2 Ne. 26:33).
But, on the other hand, earth life is completely unfair:
DEATH OF JAMES/RESCUE OF PETER
Now in one chapter, we have completely opposing outcomes to the faith of two of the apostles.
"Now about that time Herod the king stretched forth his hands to vex certain of the church. And he killed James the brother of John with the sword. And because he saw it pleased the [leaders of the] Jews, he proceeded further to take Peter also" (Acts 12:1-3)
"This James is a counselor in the First Presidency of the Church, brother of John. He was killed during Passover in Jerusalem in AD 44, making him, as far as we know, the first apostle-martyr. The death of James was a pivotal event, for it demonstrated the weakening position and increasing unpopularity of the Christians among the Jews of Jerusalem, This change seems to have resulted from the Church's extending fellowship to the Gentiles" (Ogden/Skinner, p. 61-63).
FYI: The James that is mentioned from this time forward in the account (such as in verse 17) is "the brother of Jesus, widely esteemed in Jerusalem as a strictly observant Jew, [appearing] as principal leader of the church of Jerusalem" (Bruce R. McConkie, New Testament History, p. 261, quoted in Ogden/Skinner, p. 63).
Peter, on the other hand, was imprisoned, prayed for constantly by the body of the Church, and rescued most miraculously by an angel of the Lord while he was sleeping chained between two soldiers, with guards also at the door. They, apparently, walked through the doors, through two wards of the prison, through the outer gate and down the street with no one noticing. Peter thought he was dreaming at first. It was the most awesome jailbreak ever!
The angel left him to reunite with the church members on his own. Coming to Mary's house, who was the mother of John Mark, he pretty much freaked everybody out. They thought he was a ghost. But what a joyous reunion, once they actually let him in the door!
Still, do you think James' mother thought, Why wasn't my son rescued?
ABOUT THOSE HAPPY ENDINGS...
We have the same sorts of juxtapositions in the lives of Latter-day Saints today. (And everyone else's lives as well.) One person is healed, another dies at a young age. And there are others who live to old age without any major health issues. Joshua Dennis was miraculously rescued after being lost for days in a cave on a Scouting trip. David Rayborn was struck and killed by lightning at Scout camp. But most Scouts come and go from camp in perfect safety. Elizabeth Smart was rescued months after being abducted from her bedroom and lived to serve a mission. Trisha Autry was kidnapped and brutally murdered in her own hometown, one of the safest communities in the country. And of course, there are others who sleep safely in their own beds every night of their lives.
Life is terribly unfair, and we can never expect it to be otherwise.
BUT! Paul, the great apostle who suffered so much for Christ, wrote, "All things work together for good to them that love God" (Romans 8:28) and I think he really meant that. (Next week we will discuss Paul in depth.)
(This may be a good time for class discussion and testimonies regarding miracles they have witnessed or experienced, and faith they have exercised or observed during times when "miracles" did not happen as desired.)
- Gaye Strathearn, "The Jewish and Gentile Missions: Paul's Role in the Transition," The Apostle Paul: His Life and His Testimony--Sidney B. Sperry Symposium on the New Testament
- D. Kelly Ogden & Andrew C. Skinner, New Testament Apostles Testify of Christ
- JustBible.net (http://www.justbible.net/acts10-cornelius.htm)
- Robert J. Matthews, "The Jerusalem Council," The Apostle Paul: His Life and His Testimony--Sidney B. Sperry Symposium on the New Testament